Little Books, Big Ideas: Greek Proverbs

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature or compact books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches; some are even smaller: 1.5 inches by 2 inches. A compact book, also known as an octodecimo in American Library Association lingo, generally measures 4 x 6 inches. Unfortunately, these types of books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking little book: Greek Proverbs by Vailiki Stathes published by Aeolos in Athens, Greece in 1998. In the introduction, Stathes, a language teacher, writes: “Proverbs are man’s insight into human nature. Handed down from generation to generation, they irony and wisdom are still on point in countless present-day situations. They strike so true that they are incorporated into our common speech. We allude to them without ever realizing our indebtedness to parents and grandparents.” Over the years, Stathes has collected over 500 proverbs. For this book, he selected the most popular ones, as well as those that originated in Greece: “popularity and familiarity were the main criteria for their inclusion.” Here are some notable Greek proverbs:

Those who are not dancing, sing many songs.

From the child and from the fool, one learns the truth.

A clear sky is not afraid of lightning

Little by little, one goes far.

Listen to all and believe what you want.

A small hole can sink a big ship.

You can knock all you want at a deaf man’s door.

One is the product of his teacher.

From the thorn comes a rose, and from the rose comes a thorn.

Where you are I’ve been, and where I am you’ll be.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

What Will Be Your Last Words Before the Final Curtain Falls?

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomWhy are we so fascinated by a person’s last words? Perhaps we believe that these final words somehow recount in just a few words the meaning of his or her entire life. Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, from Richard II, observes that these few final words are profoundly meaningful: “O! but they say the tongues of dying men / Enforce attention like deep harmony: / When words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain, / For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.” Yet another reason is that a person’s last words reveal something about his or her character, particularly in the shadow of death. And finally, last words can sometimes provide some insight of what it is like to die.

There is this wonderfully poignant and thought-provoking scene in The Kominsky Method in season five, episode three, titled “Near, far, wherever you are.” Having just lost his closest friend and agent of many years, and now losing his ex-wife to leukemia, the protagonist, Sandy Kominsky, a famous acting coach in Hollywood in his twilight years, addresses his students about playing death scenes. With a mixture of deep sorrow and compassion, Kominsky reflects on those precious, fleeting moments, focusing on a person’s last thoughts and words before the final curtain falls:

“Let’s talk about the subject matter of the scene — dying, on camera or on stage, to play a heartbreaking and hopefully slow death, is the dream of every actor. I would wage there’s not an actor or actress who hasn’t fantasized about how they would play those final moments… as the life force slowly slips away and as we teeter on the edge of nonexistence — how would we gasp out those last words of wit and wisdom? But is that what happens as death draws close? Do the dying exact promises from those they leave behind? Do they confess their sins? Do they make a joke?… What I’m asking you to think about is what actually happens in those final moments. I’m not talking about a shocking, violent death. I’m talking about… when you know it’s coming. When you’ve fully surrendered to the ultimate magic trick — when we really and truly disappear. I’ve sat at the bedside and I’ve held the hands of friends and loved ones as they breathed their last breath… and I can tell you this: the dramatic soliloquy at the end of life is pure and utter nonsense. If anything is being said, it’s internal. You can almost hear it. They’re having an internal conversation filled with disbelief and wonder that their life has come to an end. They hardly notice you sitting there at all. For the dying, the living are irrelevant. So, if you should ever have the opportunity to play such a scene — approach it with reverence. Consider it holy. Make sure it receives your utmost care and respect.”

When circumstances permit and that final curtain begins to fall, what will you be thinking about? Who do you want to be near you? What will be your final words? What dreams may come in that sleep of death? (Recall those memorable lines from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “To die, to sleep — / To sleep — perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”)

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Best Commencement Speeches: David Foster Wallace

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomDavid Foster Wallace was an American novelist, best known for Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and a professor of English at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. Some literary critics consider Wallace one of the most innovative and influential writers in the last two decades. Sadly, after struggling with depression for many years, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. His readers and the literary and academic communities experienced a great sense of loss; Wallace was acknowledged by many glowing tributes and four public memorial services.

In 2005, an English and Philosophy student from the commencement speaker committee from Kenyon College, a small prestigious liberal arts college located in Gambier, Ohio (with an enchanting Hogwarts School vibe), invited Wallace to deliver the commencement address to the school’s graduating class. He was told he could speak on any topic. His speech, delivered on May 21, 2005, is titled “This is Water” because Wallace uses water as a metaphor for the essential things in life that are hidden in plain sight, so easy to overlook. This mirrors one of the most famous lines in St. Exupery’s The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (in the original French: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”), spoken by the fox.

Wallace uses the opportunity of a college commencement speech to share the most important lessons he has learned in life. He addresses several important questions, including “How do we keep from going through adult life unconsciously, comfortably entrenched in habit (“the default setting”)? How do we remove ourselves from the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? How do we think about our world and separate the truth from the lies? Ultimately, Wallace believes that the goal of education is to create individuals who think freely and critically and act compassionately. It is no wonder that “This is Water” is considered to be one of the best commencement speeches of all time.

Wallace’s speech was published four years later in a small book titled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Inexplicably, however, Wallace’s speech was broken up into isolated paragraphs and sentences, each centered on their own page. Reading his eloquent and passionate speech this way is incredibly disjointed — not to mention, annoying. It’s like reading a long essay by piecing together dozens of tiny bits of paper from fortune cookies. It’s a good thing the editors of this small tome did not work on Infinite Jest — otherwise that lengthy novel, running 1,079 pages containing 577,608 words, would have been published in 60 volumes. Although Wallace committed suicide by hanging, the editors deleted the last two sentences of the original speech that refer to suicide by gunshot: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”

Here are some key excerpts from “This is Water”:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water… This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.”

The full text of the speech can be read here.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related post:
Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading:
The Legacy of David Foster Wallace by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou
Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy by Robert Bolger and Scott Korb
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished

 

What is the Most Important Meditation We Can Do Now?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsEvolution biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris shared a wonderful story about the time she met the Dalai Lama. Someone in the group asked the Dalai Lama what is the most important meditation we can do now? Without any hesitation he answered: “Critical thinking followed by action. Discern what your world is — know the plot, the scenario of this human drama, and then figure out where your talents might fit in to make a better world. And each of us must do something that will make our heart sing, because nobody will want to do it with us if we are not passionate and inspired.”

From the documentary “I Am” directed by Tom Shadyac. The documentary answers two important questions: (1) What’s wrong with the world? and (2) What can we do about it? The documentary features fascinating interviews with Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, Coleman Barks, David Suzuki, Elisabet Sahtouris, and Thom Hartmann who share their brilliant insights. The title of the documentary comes from a letter written by the British author and theologian, G. K. Chesterton. In 1908 The Times of London asked notable authors to write an essay on the topic: “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s was the shortest essay received: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Best Commencement Speeches: Joseph Brodsky

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

On December 18, 1988, Russian American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) delivered the Winter Commencement Address to the 2,000 graduates of The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan). It was delivered at a time when glasnost (“openness, being more public”), promoted by leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was sweeping over the former Soviet Union. Little did some of these graduates know the slings and arrows that the speaker, who stood before them, had endured.

Brodsky was born in Russia but was expelled in 1972 for his anti-Soviet poetry. The Soviets did not make his life easy: he was frequently interrogated, confined to a mental institution twice, and sentenced to five years of hard labor. He found solace in his study of poetry: in the evenings he would write and read anthologies of English and British poetry. Over time he became a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian country. With the help of fellow poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky was able to immigrate to America where he continued to study and write poetry. He taught at many prominent American universities, including University of Michigan, Mount Holyoke, Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic work and he was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991.

In his memorable commencement speech, titled “Speech at the Stadium,” Brodsky extols the virtues of the Ten Commandments of the Bible as well as avoiding the seven deadly sins. He doesn’t mention by name, so for the uninitiated, they are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. (Incidentally, they are called “deadly” because committing these sins leads to the death of the soul.) There is a common misperception is that the seven deadly sins (or cardinal sins) are found in the Bible.  They are not — they were introduced by Evarius Ponticus, a Christian monk and ascetic who lived in Jerusalem and Egypt in the 4th century. Ponticus believed there were eight evil thoughts: gluttony, fornication, greed, envy, wrath, dejection, boasting, and pride. (Come to think of it, that actually sounds like the essential qualities of a modern-day politician in the post-Trumpian world.) Ponticus’ ideas were incorporated into western Christian theology by John Cassian, a Christian monk and theologian, in the 5th century and later in Roman Catholic theology by by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated on the seven deadly sins in his seminal work, Summa Theologica. Brodsky’s contribution to the graduates of the 20th century is to build on these foundational 17 lessons by adding six tips for living a better life.

The transcript of Brodsky’s commencement speech can be found on several websites, often under the banner of “The Greatest Commencement Address of All Time.” Also, most of the versions have been heavily paraphrased, edited, and in some cases restructured in format. The actual transcript, which runs about 3,400 words, can be found in a collection of Brodsky’s essays titled, On Grief and Reason: Essays, that was published in 1995. An argument can legitimately be made that it is timeless, however, it may not necessarily be the greatest commencement of all time. To begin with, it is not particularly eloquent; moreover it is unnecessarily verbose, even rambling at times. (When will commencement speakers understand that this is the graduates’ moment of glory, not their own?) And for a poet, one would expect a more elegant and um… poetic expression of ideas. Surprisingly, Brodsky makes use of several cliches that could have been expressed more originally. Nevertheless, the beauty is in the eye, or in this case, ears, of the beholder: you be the judge. Here are excerpts from Brodsky’s commencement speech:

“Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose…

If I remember my colleagues well, if I know what’s happening to university curricula all over the country, if I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone. 

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. There are just seventeen items altogether, and some of them overlap. Of course, you may argue that they belong to a creed with a substantial record of violence. Still, as creeds go, this one appears to he the most tolerant; it’s worth your consideration if only because it gave birth to the society in which you have the right to question or negate its value. 

But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modem system of education or at you, its alleged victims… But there is a transparent wall between the generations, an ironic curtain, if you will, a see-through veil allowing almost no passage of experience. At best, some tips.

Regard, then, what you are about to hear as just tips­ of several icebergs, if I may say so, not of Mount Sinai. I am no Moses, nor are you biblical Jews; these are a few random jottings scribbled on a yellow pad somewhere in California — not tablets. Ignore them if you wish, doubt them if you must, forget them if you can’t help it: there is nothing imperative about them. Should some of it now or in the time to be come in handy to you, I’ll be glad. If not, my wrath won’t reach you. 

1. Now, and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bed­room eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to artic­ulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neu­rosis…

2. Now, and in the time to be, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too close to ‘’Honor thy mother and father”’ for your comfort, so be it. All I am trying to say is, try not to rebel against them, for, in all likelihood, they will die before you do, so you can spare yourselves at least this source of guilt if not of grief. If you must rebel, rebel against those who are not so easily hurt…

3. Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system, or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it. No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement. The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be…

4. Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be done at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and very precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous…

5. At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, child­hood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The mo­ment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience…

6. The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s been better geographically than his­torically; it’s still far more attractive visually than socially. It’s not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it’s the only world available: no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. It is a jungle out there, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. — literally — but what’s worse, metaphorically, too. Yet, as Robert Frost has said, “The best way out is always through.” He also said, in a different poem, though, that “to be social is to be forgiving.” It’s with a few remarks about this business of getting through that I would like to close… 

Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you re­ceived at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant, or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur….

I had better stop here. As I said, I’ll be glad if you find what I’ve said useful. If not, it will show that you are equipped far better for the future than one would expect from people of your age. Which, I suppose, is also a reason for rejoic­ing — not for apprehension. In either case — well equipped or not — I wish you luck, because what lies ahead is no picnic for the prepared and the unprepared alike, and you’ll need luck. Still, I believe that you’ll manage… 

Clearly this place is of extraordinary sentimental value for me; and so it will be­come, in a dozen years or so, for you. To that extent, I can divine your future; in that respect, I know you will manage, or, more precisely, succeed. For feeling a wave of warmth coming over you in a dozen or so years at the mention of this town’s name will indicate that, luck or no luck, as human beings you’ve succeeded. It’s this sort of success I wish to you above all in the years to come. The rest depends on luck and matters less.”

The complete commencement address can be found in Google Books by searching “Brodsky On Grief and Reason.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky (1995)
http://www.history.com/news/seven-deadly-sins-origins

The Wisdom of Audre Lorde

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

Audre Lorde (born Audrey Geraldine Lorde; 1934-1992), was an American writer, poet, feminist, and civil rights activist. She began her career as a librarian at Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in library science at Columbia University, but she flourished as a writer. Lorde’s writing focused on racial and social injustice, black identity, and feminism. She was a passionate and eloquent advocate of civil rights, shining the light on the deep harm of racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. At an early age, she began reading and memorizing poetry. By the age of 12 she discovered that it was easier for her to express herself through poetry. She published her first volume of poetry, The First Cities, in 1968, followed by Cables to Rage in 1970. Lorde became an influential voice in the Black Arts Movement after the publication of her popular collection of poems titled Coal in 1976. Over the course of her career, she published 18 books, including poems, essays, and a biography. Shortly before she died of breast cancer, Lorde adopted the African name Gamba Adisa, meaning “Warrior: she who makes her meaning known.” Below are some of her insights and perspectives from this inspiring poetic warrior.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” 

“When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining — I’m broadening the joining.”

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

“Without community, there is no liberation… but community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”

“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” 

“If I do not bring all of who I am to whatever I do, then I bring nothing, or nothing of lasting worth, for I have withheld my essence.”

“When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” 

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

“I learned so much from listening to people. And all I knew was, the only thing I had was honesty and openness.”

“You cannot, you cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.”

“It does not pay to cherish symbols when the substance lies so close at hand.”

“There is an important difference between openness and naiveté. Not everyone has good intentions nor means me well. I remind myself I do not need to change these people, only recognize who they are.”

“Sometimes we are blessed with being able to choose the time, and the arena, and the manner of our revolution, but more usually we must do battle where we are standing.”

“Each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever.” 

“We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.”

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” 

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

“The speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 

“Once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy.” 

“I write for those women who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they were so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” 

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” 

“I do not want to be tolerated, or misnamed. I want to be recognized.” 

“The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” 

“I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do.” 

“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self-indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.” 

“If you do not learn to hate you will never be lonely enough to love easily nor will you always be brave, although it does not grow any easier. Do not pretend to convenient beliefs, even when they are righteous; you will never be able to defend your city while shouting.” 

“Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.” 

“I am my best work — a series of road maps, reports, recipes, doodles, and prayers from the front lines.”

“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” 

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

Who Are the Seven Sages of Greece?

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn the dialogue Protagoras, Athenian philosopher Plato (428-424 BC), considered one of the most influential figures in Western philosophy, provided one of the earliest lists of the Seven Sages of Greece (also referred to as the Seven Wise Men). These seven men, who lived in the 6th century, were considered to be the wisest philosophers and statesmen of Ancient Greece. What is impressive and astonishing is that an entire nation could easily identify seven really wise individuals. Fast forward two centuries and we find ourselves living in a culture devoid of these types of preeminent wise philosophers. Could you imagine identifying the Seven Sages of America, or even the Seven Sages of the Modern World? Sadly, in their place we have “influencers” who promote consumerism and mindless thinking. But we digress… The Seven Sages of Greece dispensed their timeless, practical wisdom through short and memorable aphorisms which were inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Apollo, located in Delphi. In Protagoras (342-343), Plato writes:

Hence this very truth has been observed by certain persons both in our day and in former times — that the Spartan cult is much more the pursuit of wisdom than of athletics; for they know that a man’s ability to utter such remarks is to be ascribed to his perfect education. Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of [Chenae], and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. All these were enthusiasts, lovers and disciples of the Spartan culture; and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short, memorable sayings that fell from each of them they assembled together and dedicated these as the first-fruits of their lore to Apollo in his Delphic temple, inscribing there those maxims which are on every tongue — “Know thyself” and “Nothing overmuch.” To what intent do I say this? To show how the ancient philosophy had this style of laconic brevity; and so it was that the saying of Pittacus was privately handed about with high approbation among the sages—that it is hard to be good.

While other Ancient Greek writers included in their lists of Seven Sages Cleobulus of Lindos or Periander of Corinthos, both of who were tyrants, Plato included Myson of Chanae, a farmer.

The walls of the Temple of Apollo were inscribed with a total of 147 maxims (known as the Delphic maxims), which were originally attributed to Apollo, but later writers, like historian Diogenes Laertius (3rd century) and Greek scholar Joannes Stobaeus (5th century) attributed to the Seven Sages of Greece. Stobaeus compiled the instructive sayings from early Greek authors into a compilation titled Eclogues (Extracts). Modern classical scholars now believe that the authorship of these maxims is uncertain and that these were popular maxims, some of which where attributed to certain sages. Below are the some notable aphorisms attributed to the Seven Sages of Greece: 

Bias of Priene: “Too many workers spoil the work”

Chilon of Sparta: “Know thyself”

Cleobulus of Lindos: “Moderation is the chief good”

Periander of Corinth – “Forethought in all things”

Pittacus of Mitylene: “Know thine opportunity”

Solon of Athens: “Nothing in excess”

Thales of Miletus: “To bring surety brings ruin”

The 147 Delphic maxims can be read here. Which is the maxim which resonates the most with you?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

Read related posts: The Greatest Life Lesson: Life is Transitory
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

Think Before You Speak. Read Before You Think.

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIf you happen to stop by the Strand Bookstore in New York City, you will inevitably come across signs placed among the books that provide the following timeless advice: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.” In the captivating Netflix documentary, “Pretend It’s a City,” we learn that the author of that quote is humorist Fran Lebowitz. The quote is from an essay titled “Tips for Teens” that she originally wrote for Newsweek magazine’s “My Turn” back in 1978. Lebowitz, who is a fascinating raconteur, explains that the words found on those signs is only half the quote; the full quote is “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself — a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”

In that essay, written when she was 28 years old, Lebowitz dispensed the type of life wisdom — albeit delivered in her trademarked wry, sardonic style — that are typically found in high school and college graduation commencement speeches. You may recall Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s faux graduation speech titled “Always Wear Sunscreen” published in May 1997 that also provided young people with sage advice. (Interestingly, due to an Internet version of the “Telephone Game,” the speech was mistakenly attributed author Kurt Vonnegut.) Lebowitz’s essay, which was reprinted in a collection of essays titled Social Studies published in 1981 (a hardback is on sale on Amazon for $899.99!), perfectly captures the awkward and distressing period of adolescence: “There is perhaps, for all concerned, no period of life so unpleasant, so unappealing, so downright unpalatable, as that of adolescence. And while pretty much everyone who comes into contact with him is disagreeably affected, certainly no one is in for a ruder shock than the actual teenager himself. Fresh from twelve straight years of uninterrupted cuteness, he is singularly unprepared to deal with the harsh consequences of inadequate personal appearance.” Most people can relate to that. But Lebowitz observes that the teenager’s problems are not only skin deep — she believes that teenagers face all types of challenges and respond by excessive oversharing (“TMI” in textese): “Philosophical, spiritual, social, legal — a veritable multitude of difficulties daily confront him. Understandably disconcerted, the teenager almost invariably finds himself in a state of unrelenting misery. This is, of course, unfortunate, even lamentable. Yet one frequently discovers a lack of sympathy for the troubled youth. This dearth of compassion is undoubtedly due to the teenager’s insistence upon dealing with his lot in an unduly boisterous fashion. He is, quite simply, at an age where he can keep nothing to himself. This sort of behavior naturally tends to have an alienating effect.”

Lebowitz, feeling some level of sympathy for disaffected teenagers since she was as adolescent once — as she will freely admit — casts some other pearls of wisdom to help them navigate their way through life:

“If in addition to being physically unattractive you find that you do not get along well with others, do not under any circumstances attempt to alleviate this situation by developing an interesting personality. An interesting personality is, in an adult, insufferable. In a teenager it is frequently punishable by law.

Wearing dark glasses at the breakfast table is socially acceptable only if you are legally blind or partaking of your morning meal out of doors during a total eclipse of the sun.

Should your political opinions be at extreme variance with those of your parents, keep in mind that while it is indeed your constitutional right to express these sentiments verbally, it is unseemly to do so with your mouth full–particularly when it is full of the oppressor’s standing rib roast.

Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself–a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.

Try to derive some comfort from the knowledge that if your guidance counselor were working up to his potential, he wouldn’t still be in high school.

The teen years are fraught with any number of hazards, but none so perilous as that which manifests itself as a tendency to consider movies an important art form. If you are presently, or just about to be, of this opinion, perhaps I can spare you years of unbearable pretension by posing this question: If movies (or films, as you are probably now referring to them) were of such a high and serious nature, can you possibly entertain even the slightest notion that they would show them in a place that sold Orange Crush and Jujubes?

It is at this point in your life that you will be giving the greatest amount of time and attention to matters of sex. This not only is acceptable, but should, in fact, be encouraged, for this is the last time that sex will be genuinely exciting.

The girl in your class who suggests that this year the Drama Club put on The Bald Soprano will be a thorn in people’s sides all of her life.

Should you be a teenager blessed with uncommon good looks, document this state of affairs by the taking of photographs. It is the only way anyone will ever believe you in years to come.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts:
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading:
Social Studies, Fran Lebowitz, Random House, 1981.
Pretend It’s A City, Library Services (Episode 7), Netflix, premiered January 8, 2021.

Canons of Conduct by Thomas Jefferson

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAlthough in today’s world it is very hard to believe, but there was a time that political leaders and statesmen actually exemplified the highest standards of their office, of civic virtue, of moral character, of conviction, of charity, and concern for their fellow man. Thomas Jefferson was one of those individuals. Mind you, as many biographies can attest, he wasn’t perfect, but he was a man of principle and believed in the importance of education, especially self-directed education, and the quest for knowledge and truth — and Truth (with a capital “T”). He also believed that it was important for elders to pass on the wisdom they acquired through experience and age to young people to help them make better choices. To that end, Jefferson took the time to write several letters containing the “Canon of Conduct” to his children, grandchildren, as well as the children of his friends to provide guidance on matters of personal conduct. In a 1817 letter to Paul Clay, the son of a friend, Jefferson included 10 canons. However, in a letter (c. 1805) to his granddaughter, Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson listed these 12 rules of conduct. Although some of the rules are original, others are derived from well-known proverbs. Throughout the 19th century, these “Canons of Conduct” were reprinted in newspapers and magazines; moreover, young schoolchildren were required to memorize them.

A Dozen Canons of Conduct of Life

1. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.

2. Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.

3. Never spend your money before you have it.

4. Never buy a thing you do not want, because it is cheap, it will be dear to you.

5. Take care of your cents: Dollars will take care of themselves!

6. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.

7. We never repent of having eat[en] too little.

8. Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.

9. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.

10. Take things always by their smooth handle.

11. Think as you please, & so let others, & you will have no disputes.

12. When angry, count 10. before you speak; if very angry, 100.

All of these rules for living are fairly straightforward. The one that might puzzle modern readers is number nine: “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.” A clearer paraphrase of this is: “Don’t worry so much about things that probably will not happen.”

If you were to write Canons of Conduct for your children and grandchildren, what would your list include?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

For further reading:
https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/canons-conduct
https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/216
http://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/11/05/454845747/skewering-jefferson-s-10-rules-to-live-by-19th-century-style

The Letters that Presidents Leave to Each Other

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIt is considered the toughest job on the planet: being President of the United States. Often, they come into office with decades of experience in politics, business, or both; however, after one or two terms, they leave far wiser than they arrived. In 1989, President Ronald Reagan began the tradition of leaving a handwritten letter to his successor. The letter was placed in a drawer of the Resolute Desk located in the Oval Office. The first letter was lighthearted and informal but over time, the letters grew more serious, offering encouragement and specific advice. So what sort of advice or insight does an outgoing President give to an incoming President? Fortunately, you don’t have to run for office, raise more than $2 billion, and attend hundreds of politic rallies to win a Presidential election to find out. Over the years, all of these private letters have been made public. Below are the personal letters that outgoing Presidents have left for their successors.

On January 20, 1989 President Ronald Reagan left the first personal letter for incoming President George H.W. Bush. Since President Reagan was known for his sense of humor and folksy style, he wanted his letter to be lighthearted. Accordingly, he chose stationery that featured the idiom “Don’t let the turkeys get you down” with an illustration of an elephant surrounded by turkeys. Reagan wrote:

“Dear George,
You’ll have moments when you want to use this particular stationery. Well go to it.
George I treasure the memorys [sic] we share and wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers. God Bless You & Barbara. I’ll miss our Thursday lunches.
Ron”

President Bush served only one term. So on January 20, 1993, President Bush wrote the following letter to incoming President Bill Clinton:

“Dear Bill,
When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.
I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.
There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.
You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.
Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.
Good luck —
George”

Eight years later, on January 20, 2001, President Clinton wrote a letter to incoming President George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush’s son. Clinton wrote:

“Dear George,
Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.
Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.
You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.
The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe is right is inexpressible.
My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.
Sincerely,
Bill”

Another eight years passed. President Bush wrote the following letter to incoming President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009: 

Dear Barack,
Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life.
Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.
There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your ‘friends’ will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.
God bless you.
Sincerely,
GW

On January 17, 2009, after a tumultuous and divisive election with a result that even surprised the winning candidate, President Obama left a handwritten letter for incoming President Donald Trump. Unlike the previous letters, the salutation was more formal and the length of the letter was substantially longer. In hindsight, one of the most notable lines is this one: “[It’s] up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.” Here is the complete letter that President Obama wrote:

“Dear Mr. President,
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.
This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years.
First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can (to) build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.
Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.
Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions – like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties – that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.
And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.
Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.
Good luck and Godspeed,
BO”

On January 20, 2020, outgoing President Trump broke tradition by not attending President Joe Biden’s inauguration, but he decided to continue the tradition of the personal letter, probably because he truly treasured the letter that President Obama wrote to him four year ago. As of this writing, we don’t know what he wrote. When reporters asked President Biden about the contents of the letter, Biden graciously replied, “The president wrote a very generous letter. Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him, but it was generous.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

Read related posts:
What was the Letter Read at the Trump Inauguration?
Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father
John Steinbeck’s Letter to His Son About Love
Nixon’s Eloquent Apollo 11 Speech that America Never Heard
The Speech that JFK Never Gave

For further reading: http://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/01/20/presidential-notes-inauguration-trump-biden/

Best Commencement Speeches: Chadwick Boseman

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

On May 12, 2018, a young actor delivered the 150th commencement speech to a capacity crowd of over 20,000 people at Howard University. There was tremendous excitement and anticipation surrounding his appearance since his recent film was one of the highest grossing films that year, earning over $1 billion worldwide at the box office. Little did the graduates know that the actor was not just a hero in films, he was a hero in real life as he courageously and silently was battling colon cancer since 2016. After his death in August 2020, his words of wisdom on that summer day would be even more meaningful to that graduating class — and now the world. Who is this actor? The then 42-year-old American actor Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther, two Avengers films, Get On Up, and Marshall. Variety film critic Owne Gleiberman observed, “Boseman was a virtuoso actor who had the rare ability to create a character from the outside in and the inside out [and he] knew how to fuse with a role, etching it in three dimensions… That’s what made him an artist, and a movie star, too. Yet in Black Panther, he also became that rare thing, a culture hero.” Michele and Barack Obama added, “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.” Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, expressed his conflicting emotions: “I feel strange. I am overjoyed — not that I got to know him — but that he lived and in doing so, he taught us how to live fully and how to embrace life through all its opportunities, flaws, and weaknesses. I don’t think he hid from any of those things. He wore them gracefully. His ability to set that example is so touching and that, to me, is what is resonating now. He lived fully. His time wasn’t short. He maximized what he had.”

One of the most quoted passages from the speech is this: “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” Here is the full text of Chadwick Boseman’s inspiring commencement speech to the graduates at Howard University:

“It is a great privilege, graduates to address you on your day, a day marking one of the most important accomplishments of your life to date. This is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. I remember walking across this yard on what seemed to be a random day, my head down lost in my own world of issues like many of you do daily. I’m almost at the center of the yard. I raised my head and Muhammad Ali was walking towards me. Time seemed to slow down as his eyes locked on mine and opened wide. He raised his fist to a quintessential guard.

I was game to play along with him, to act as if I was a worthy opponent. What an honor to be challenged by the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, for a brief moment. His face was as serious as if I was Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. His movements were flashes of a past greater than I can imagine. His security let the joke play along for a second before they ushered him away, and I walked away floating like a butterfly. I walked away amused at him, amused at myself, amused at life for this moment that almost no one would ever believe. I walked away light and ready to take on the world. That is the magic of this place. Almost anything can happen here. HU! You know!

Howard University, I was riding here and I heard on the radio, somebody called it Wakanda University. But it has many names, the Mecca, the Hilltop. It only takes one hour, one tour of the physical campus to understand why we call it the Hilltop. Every day is leg day here. That’s why some of you have cars. During my junior and senior years, I lived in a house off campus at Bryant Street. For those of you… That’s right, Bryant Street. For those of you who don’t know what that means, that’s at the bottom of the hill where the incline gets real. Almost every day I would walk the full length of the hill to Fine Arts, where most of my classes were, carrying all of my books, because once you walked that far on foot, you are not walking back home until it’s time to go home for good.

But beyond the physical campus, the Hilltop represents the culmination of the intellectual and spiritual journey you have undergone while you were here. You have been climbing this academic slope for at least three or four years. For some of you, maybe even a little bit more. Throughout ancient times, institutions of learning have been built on top of hills to convey that great struggle is required to achieve degrees of enlightenment. Each of you had your own unique difficulties with the hill. For some of you, the challenge was actually academics. When you hear the words magna cum laude, cum laude, you know that’s not you. That’s not you. You worked hard. You did your best, but you didn’t make A’s or B’s, sometimes C’s. You never made the dean’s list, but that’s okay. You are here on top of the hill.

I want to say something to that. You know, sometimes your grades don’t give a real indication of what your greatness might be. So, it really is okay. For others it was financial. You and your family struggled to make ends meet. Every semester of your matriculation you had to stand in one line to get to another line, to get to another line for somebody that might help you. You had to work an extra job, or two, but you are here.

For a lot of you, not all, but a lot of you, your hardest struggle was social. Some of you never fit in. You were never as cool and as popular as you wanted to be, and it bothers you. So, your social struggles here became psychological. Even though you made it up to hill, you carried the baggage of rejection with you, but you are here.

Some of you went through something traumatic. You made it to the top of the hill but not without scars and bruises. Some of you fit in too much. You were on the yard rapping on your frat block when you were supposed to be in class. Or you got caught up into DC party life. I know how that is. I mean, we are right here in the midst of the city. Sometimes you forgot you were in school. You probably could have graduated with honors, but instead you are getting an “Oh yeah” degree today. Oh yeah, I have class. Oh yeah, I have that paper due. Oh yeah, I have a final. You were literally too cool for school. You waited until the last minute to do your best work and it’s a wonder that you made it up the hill at all because you carry the baggage of too much acceptance.

Most of you graduating here today struggled against one or more of the impediments or obstacles I’ve mentioned in order to reach this hilltop. When completing a long climb, one first experiences dizziness, disorientation and shortness of breath due to the high altitude, but once you become accustomed to the climb, your mind opens up to the tranquility of the triumph.

Oftentimes, the mind is flooded with realizations that were, for some reason, harder to come to when you were at a lower elevation. At this moment, most of you need some realizations because right now you have some big decisions to make. Right now, I urge you in your breath, in your eyes, in your consciousness — invest in the importance of this moment and cherish it. I know some of you might’ve partied last night. You should, you should celebrate, but this moment is also a part of that celebration. So, savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what has actually happened here. Look down over what you conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through.

Some of you here struggled against the university itself. This year, students protested and took over the A building, formulated a list of demands and negotiated with our president and administration to determine the direction of our institution. It’s impressive. Similarly, during my years here at Howard, we also protested and took over the A building in order to preserve Howard’s alum, in order to preserve Howard’s annual appropriations from Congress. President H. Patrick Swygert decided to reduce the number of colleges at the university. By his plan, engineering would need to merge with architecture. Nursing would merge with allied health and the fine arts, my school, will be absorbed by arts and sciences. That’s how we saw it, absorbed.

For many of us in fine arts, this signaled to us that our curriculums, all the curriculums of students following us, might become watered-down concentrations. This undermined the very legacy we were proud to be a part of and aimed to continue. The fine arts program had produced Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Isaiah Washington, Richard Wesley, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, just to name a few. We felt that… Yes, yes. You could go on and on. You can go on and on. You can go on and on. We felt that we could compete with students from Juilliard, NYU and Carroll Arts as long as we continued to have a concentrated dosage that rivaled a conservatory experience, but without it…

Although we took over the A building for several days and presented our arguments to President Swygert and the administration, the schools were still merged. Thus, the current collection or formation of schools exists. That’s why I view your recent protest as such an accomplishment for both sides of the debate, student and administration. I didn’t come here to take sides. My interest is what’s best for the school.

A Howard University education is not just about what happens in the classroom, students. In some ways, what you were able to do exemplifies some of the skills you learned in the classroom. It takes the education out of the realm of theory and into utility and practice. Obviously, your organizational skills were unprecedented. I’m told that you organized shifts so that you could at least continue some of your classes. We missed all our classes. We were in the A building. I’m told that through donations, there was always an ample helping of food. I probably ate a slice of pizza during the entirety of our three-day protest.

Your organization and planning was impeccable. You received the majority of your demands, making a significant impact on those who came after you. As is often the case, those that follow most often enjoy the results of the progress you gained. You love the university enough to struggle with it. Now, I have to ask you that you have to continue to do that even now that you received your demands. Even if you are walking today, you have to continue to do that. Everything that you fought for was not for yourself. It was for those that come after. You could have been disgruntled and transferred, but you fought to be participants in making this institution the best that it can be. But I must also applaud President Wayne Frederick and the administration for listening to the students.

Your freedom of speech was exercised in a way where you can contribute to this place. It also shows that you can contribute to the democracy. The administration and the campus police at the time when I was protesting were not nearly as open-minded as this current one. I know this was a difficult time, but because of both of you, I believe Howard is a few steps closer to the actualization of its potential, the potential that many of us have dreamed for it. Students, your protests are also promising because many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization. The fact that you have struggled with this university that you love is a sign that you can use your education to improve the world that you are entering.

I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television and film. In my first New York audition for a professional play I landed the lead role. From that play, I got my first agent. From that agent, I got an on-screen audition. It was a soap opera. It wasn’t Third Watch. It was a soap opera on a major network. I scored that role, too. I felt like Mike Tyson when he first came on the scene knocking out opponents in the first round. With this soap opera gig, I was already promised to make six figures, more money than I had ever seen. I was feeling myself. But once I got the first script, with soap operas you very often get the script the night before and then you shoot the whole episode in one day with little to no time to prepare.

Once I saw the role I was playing, I found myself conflicted. The role wasn’t necessarily stereotypical. A young man in his formative years with a violent streak pulled into the allure of gang involvement. That’s somebody’s real story. Never judge the characters you play. That’s what we were always taught. That’s the first rule of acting. Any role played honestly can be empowering, but I was conflicted because this role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk. The writing failed to search for specificity. Plus, there was barely a glimpse of positivity or talent in the character, barely a glimpse of hope. I would have to make something out of nothing. I was conflicted. Howard had instilled in me a certain amount of pride and for my taste this role didn’t live up to those standards.

It was just my luck that after filming the first two episodes, execs of the show called me into their offices and told me how happy they were with my performance. They wanted me to be around for a long time. They said if there was anything that I needed, just let them know. That was my opening. I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character, questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one: Where is my father? The exec answered, “Well, he left when you were younger.” Of course. Okay. Okay. Question number two: In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent, so why exactly did my little brother and I have to go into foster care? Matter-of-factly, he said, “Well, of course she is on heroin.”

That could be real, I guess, but I didn’t want to assume that’s what it was. If we are around here assuming that the Black characters in the show are criminals, on drugs and deadbeat parents, then that would probably be stereotypical, wouldn’t it? That word stereotypical lingered. One of the execs pulled out my resume and began studying it. The other exec wore a smile and was now trying to live up to what they had promised me only a few moments before — “If there is anything you need, just let us know.” She said, “As you have seen, things move really fast around here, but we are more than happy to connect you with the writers if you have suggestions.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that would be great.” I said, “because I’m just trying to do my homework on this. I didn’t know if you guys have decided on all the facts, but maybe there are some things we could come up with, some talent or gift that we can build. Maybe he is really good at math or something. He has to be active. I’m doing my best not to play this character like a victim.”

“So, you went to Howard University, huh?” the exec holding my resume interrupted, peeking over the pages. “Yes,” I said proudly. He slid my resume back in his desk and said, “Thank you for your concerns. We will be watching you.”

I left the office. I shot the episode I had come in to shoot on that day. Probably the best one I did out of the three because I got one that was bothering me off my chest. I was let go from that job on the next day. I got a phone call from my agent. They decided to go another way. The questions that I asked set the producers on guard and perhaps paved the way for less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me.

As the Scripture says, “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God kept it growing.” God kept it growing. Yet and still, when you invest in a seed, watching it grow without you, that is a bitter pill to swallow, a bitter pill. Anybody that has ever been fired knows what I’m talking about. Even if you really don’t want the job, when they let you go, it’s like any break-up, you act like you don’t care. I didn’t need that damn job anyway. I didn’t need them.

But when you have those moments alone, you start to wonder if there was a better way to handle it. If you could have handled it better maybe you could help your family. Then before you know it, you are broke. You find yourself scraping together change just so you can ride the subway, so that you could get the next job. Maybe if you could book something else that would eclipse the feeling of doubt that’s building, but it seems like you can’t pay them to hire you now.

My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again. Well, that was fine because I never wanted to act in the first place. And I definitely didn’t want to be caught dead going after a fake Hollywood pipe dream. I’m more of a writer, director anyway, so forget their stories. I can tell my own stories. But am I actually blackballed? “We are hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there is a stigma that you are difficult.” As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterwards. I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.

But what do you do when the principle and the standards that were instilled in you here at Howard closed the doors in front of you? Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how need to fight it. At some point, my mind reverted back to my experiences here, to the professors that challenged me and struggled against me, Professor Robert Williams, Doctor Singleton, George Epstein, to name a few, the ones that will fail you out of the goodness of their hearts.

This may be hard to grasp for some of you right now, but I even considered President Swygert and how negotiating with him was practice for a world that was considerably more cruel and unforgiving than any debate here, one that had no interest in my ideals and beliefs. How would I maneuver through all of this?

Finally, I thought of Ali in the middle of the yard in his elder years, drawing from his victories and his losses. At that moment I realized something new about the greatness of Ali and how he carried his crown. I realized that he was transferring something to me on that day. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter in me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you. God says in Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.

When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it. God will move someone that’s holding you back away from the door and put someone there who will open it for you if it’s meant for you. I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory then you will not regret it.

Now, this is your time. The light of new realizations shines on you today. Howard’s legacy is not wrapped up in the money that you will make but the challenges that you choose to confront. As you commence to your paths, press on with pride and press on with purpose. God bless you. I love you, Howard. Howard forever!”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/howard-university-president-reflects-on-chadwick-bosemans-commencement-speech-it-shows-his-grace
cnn.com/2020/08/29/us/howard-university-commencement-speech-chadwick-boseman-trnd/index.html

 

Secrets to Surviving the Covid-19 Crisis According to Centenarians

Living in 2020 sucks, to put it bluntly. Covid-19 illness and death, sheltering-in-place, financial collapse, massive unemployment, businesses failing, corruption in government, the inept Trump administration, systemic police brutality and racism, white nationalism, the climate crisis… I could go on. How does one navigate one of the most challenging and troubling times in America’s history? In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood talks about the importance of perspective: “What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.” Amen to that.

Imagine being born in 1920 and witnessing some of the most turbulent times in American history: the Pearl Harbor attack, World War II, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, The Great Depression (1929-1933), the Vietnam War and protests (1955-75), Black Monday (1987), the 9/11 attacks (2001), the financial crisis of 2007-2008 — only to find yourself in 2020 where several crises seem to be rolled into one. It’s an exclusive club: people who have lived more than 100 years, known as centenarians. For the most part, they have lived a happy, fulfilling lives. So our question for them is: how did they do it?

In interviews, centenarians have generously shared their secrets to living a happy, fulfilling life; however, on another level, these insights can be viewed as the best way to get through these very challenging, uncertain times:

1: Happiness comes from what we do. Life is about really living and making memories with people you care about. ““I have so many beautiful memories. I got to do all the things I wanted to.”

2: Happiness comes from living in the now. You cannot live in the past, so don’t dwell on it — focus on the present.

3: Happiness comes from having a positive attitude and being optimistic. “Decide to be content. Don’t chase happiness. Just be satisfied.”

4: Love and a good partnership are critical for a long life. “Being happily married and happy in general is the remedy for all illness.”

5: Learn to adapt and change as circumstances changes. “Everything must pass.”

6: Be kind and help others.

7: Be curious: always keep learning

8: Eat well, get enough sleep, and take care of your health.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: https://anxiety-gone.com/9-powerful-life-lessons-from-100-year-olds/

Best Commencement Speeches: Rick Rigsby

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

Dr. Rick Rigsby is an ordained minister and President and CEO of Rick Rigby Communications; he travels around the world as a motivational speaker teaching people about leadership principles. Prior to that, Rigsby was an award-winning television news reporter, a college professor at CSU Fresno and Texas A&M (where he earned the Outstanding Teaching Award), and served as chaplain and character coach for the Texas A&M Aggies football team. He has earned four degrees: BA in Mass Communications; MA in Public Communications; MA in Biblical Theology; and a PhD in Critical Media Studies. Rigsby is the author of the bestselling book Lessons From a Third Grade Dropout: How the Timeless Wisdom of One Man Can Impact an Entire Generation. Rigsby was born in Vallejo, California in 1956 to working class parents. His mother was a forklift operator at the Venetia Arsenal and his father was a cook at the California Maritime Academy. In his motivational speeches, Rigsby draws on his life experiences to share the wisdom of his working class parents who taught him enduring values and life lessons and inspired lifelong learning. As his website explains: “Inspired by a genuine conviction to help people realize their full potential [Rigsby] brings a combined four decades of experience and expertise… [He] encourages, inspires and challenges people at every level to dream bigger, stretch beyond comfort zones and achieve the impossible!” Below is Rigby’s powerful, poignant, and inspiring commencement speech, titled “Lessons from a Third Grade Dropout” to the graduating class of the California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo on April 22, 2017. It is filled with several insightful and transformative life lessons drawn from his personal journey. It is no wonder that this graduation speech has been viewed over 14 million times:

The wisest person I ever met in my life, a third-grade dropout. Wisest and dropout in the same sentence is rather oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp. Like fun run — ain’t nothing fun about it. Like Microsoft Works — y’all don’t hear me. I used to say [I] like country music — but I’ve lived in Texas so long, I love country music now. Yeah! I hunt. I fish. I have cowboy boots and cowboy… Y’all, I’m a blackneck redneck. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? [It’s] no longer oxymoronic for me to say country music and it’s not oxymoronic for me to say third grade and dropout.

That third grade dropout, the wisest person I ever met in my life, who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact, was my father, a simple cook, wisest man I ever met in my life. Just a simple cook. Left school in the third grade to help out on the family farm but just because he left school doesn’t mean his education stopped. Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” My father taught himself how to read, taught himself how to write, decided in the midst of Jim Crowism, as America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War, my father decided he was going to stand and be a man, not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man, but a man. He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.

I have four degrees. My brother is a judge. We’re not the smartest ones in our family — it’s a third grade dropout daddy, a third grade dropout daddy who was quoting Michelangelo, saying to us boys, “I won’t have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I’m gonna have a real issue if you aim low and hit.” A country mother quoting Henry Ford, saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I learned that from a third grade drop. Simple lessons, lessons like these. “Son, you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.” We never knew what time it was at my house because the clocks were always ahead. My mother said, for nearly 30 years, my father left the house at 3:45 in the morning, one day, she asked him, “Why, Daddy?” He said, “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.”

I want to share a few things with you. Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do.” Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit, not an act. Don’t ever forget that. I know you’re tough. I know you’re seaworthy, but always remember to be kind, always. Don’t ever forget that. Never embarrass Mama. Mm-hmm. If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. If Daddy ain’t happy, don’t nobody care — but I’m going to tell you.

Next lesson: lesson from a cook over there in the galley. “Son, make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego.” I want to remind you cadets of something as you graduate. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. You all might have a relative in mind you want to send that to. Let me say it again: ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. Pride is the burden of a foolish person.

John Wooden coached basketball at UCLA for a living, but his calling was to impact people, and with all those national championships, guess what he was found doing in the middle of the week? Going into the cupboard, grabbing a broom and sweeping his own gym floor. You want to make an impact? Find your broom. Every day of your life, you find your broom. You grow your influence that way. That way, you’re attracting people so that you can impact them.

Final lesson. “Son, if you’re going to do a job, do it right.” I’ve always been told how average I can be, always been criticized about being average, but I want to tell you something. I stand here before you before all of these people, not listening to those words, but telling myself every single day to shoot for the stars, to be the best that I can be. Good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better, and better isn’t good enough if it can be best.

Let me close with a very personal story that I think will bring all this into focus. Wisdom will come to you in the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times through failure. When you hit rock bottom, remember this. While you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a great foundation on which to build and on which to grow. I’m not worried that you’ll be successful. I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time. The person that gets up off the canvas and keeps growing, that’s the person that will continue to grow their influence.

Back in the ’70s, to help me make this point, let me introduce you to someone. I met the finest woman I’d ever met in my life. Mm-hmm. Back in my day, we’d have called her a brick house. This woman was the finest woman I’d ever seen in my life. There was just one little problem. Back then, ladies didn’t like big old linemen. The Blind Side hadn’t come out yet. They liked quarterbacks and running back. We’re at this dance, and I find out her name is Trina Williams from Lompoc, California. We’re all dancing and we’re just excited. I decide in the middle of dancing with her that I would ask her for her phone number. Trina was the first — Trina was the only woman in college who gave me her real telephone number.

The next day, we walked to [Baskin-Robbins] ice cream parlor. My friends couldn’t believe it. This has been 40 years ago, and my friends still can’t believe it. We go on a second date and a third date and a fourth date. Mm-hmm. We drive from Chico to Vallejo so that she can meet my parents. My father meets her. My daddy. My hero. He meets her, pulls me to the side and says, “Is she psycho?” Anyway, we go together for a year, two years, three years, four years. By now, Trina’s a senior in college. I’m still a freshman, but I’m working some things out. I’m so glad I graduated in four terms, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.

Now, it’s time to propose, so I talk to her girlfriends, and it’s California. It’s in the ’70s, so it has to be outside, have to have a candle and you have to some chocolate. Listen, I’m from the hood. I had a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. That’s what I had. She said, “Yes.” That was the key. I married the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my… Y’all ever been to a wedding and even before the wedding starts, you hear this? “How in the world?” It was coming from my side of the family! We get married. We have a few children. Our lives are great.

One day, Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis, me and my two little boys walked up to Mommy’s casket and for two years my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it wasn’t for those two little boys, there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom. You know what sustained me? The wisdom of a third grade dropout, the wisdom of a simple cook.

We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry, but this time I saw my dad cry. That was his daughter — Trina was his daughter, not his daughter-in-law, and I’m right behind my father about to see her for the last time on this Earth, and my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me. He said, “Son, just stand. You keep standing. You keep standing no matter how rough the sea, you keep standing, and I’m not talking about just water. You keep standing. No matter what you don’t give up.” I learned that lesson from a third grade dropout. And as clearly as I’m talking to you today, these were some of [my wife’s] last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said, “It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.”

I ask y’all one question, a question that I was asked all my life by a third grade dropout. How you living? How you living? Every day, ask yourself that question. How you living? Here’s what a cook would suggest you to live, this way: that you would not judge, that you would show up early, that you’d be kind, that you make sure that that servant’s towel is huge and used, that if you’re going to do something, you do it the right way. That cook would tell you this: that it’s never wrong to do the right thing, that how you do anything is how you do everything, and in that way, you will grow your influence to make an impact. In that way, you will honor all those who have gone before you who have invested in you. Look in those unlikeliest places for wisdom. Enhance your life every day by seeking that wisdom and asking yourself every night, “How am I living?”

May God richly bless you all. Thank you for having me here.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: rickrigsby.com
http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/201310186163/features/nine-life-lessons-graduate
Speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg_Q7KYWG1g

John Steinbeck’s Letter to His Son About Love

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomA father imparts many things to his children, including guidance, values, morals, and wisdom. Some of the most cherished books in my library are collections of letters written by notable authors to their children. One memorable letter was written by John Steinbeck in 1958 to his eldest son, Thomas, then a teenager who was attending boarding school. Thomas had fallen in love with a girl named Susan and wrote to his father for advice. Of course, this is a topic that every father knows about, but more so for an award-winning author who has explored its depth in several novels. Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1962 and in his acceptance speech, he touched on the importance of love: “the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” In the letter to his son, included in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters edited by his third wife, Elaine, Steinbeck shares his profound, timeless insights about love:

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love, Fa

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Greatest Life Lesson: Life is Transitory
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

Essential Worldwide Laws of Life: Learning

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomWhat does it mean to live a good life? Indeed, it is an important question that has been pondered by philosophers, writers, and thinkers for thousands of years. One of those thinkers was Sir John Templeton (1912-2008), an American-born British investor, fund manager and philanthropist. Templeton had an impeccable education: he attended Yale University by paying part of his tuition by playing poker. He went on to study law at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Templeton was a brilliant stock trader and pioneered the use of globally diversified funds known as the Templeton Mutual Funds. Despite his enormous wealth, he remained humble, insisting on driving his own car and flying coach. Moreover, he was  a very generous philanthropist, having donated more than $1 billion to charities through the John Templeton Foundation.

Templeton was fascinated by the question: what does it mean to live a good life. He studied the major scriptures of the world, as well as the philosophers, historians, artists, writers, and scientists who studied this question. Templeton was looking for a way to connect the dots, and what he discovered were certain commonalities, threads that were woven into the tapestry of wisdom. He called these lessons the “laws of life.” In 1998, he published The Essential Worldwide Laws of Life so that readers of every age could discover the universal truths of life, the life lessons that are present in every society and religion, transcending time. Templeton elaborates: “Following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin and others who have tried to pass on their learning to others, this book has been written from a lifetime of experience and diligent observation in the hope that it may help people in all parts of the world to make their lives not only happier but also more useful.”

One of the keys to living a good life is the importance of teaching and learning. Here are some excerpts from the chapter on learning:

There is a difference between acquiring knowledge and information and possessing wisdom. You may acquire knowledge from a university, your travels, your relationships, the books you read, and other activities in which you participate. But are you also gaining wisdom?

Wisdom is born of mistakes; confront error and learn. (J. Jelinek)

Defeat isn’t bitter if you don’t swallow it. (Ten Engstrom)

You can make opposition work for you. (Anonymous)

Everything and everyone around you is your teacher. (Ken Keyes)

We learn more by welcoming criticism than by rendering judgment. (J. Jelinek)

Only one thing is more important than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience. (John Templeton)

We can become bitter or better as a result of our experiences. (Eric Butterworth)

If you think you know it all, you are less likely to learn more. (John Templeton)

No one’s education is ever complete. (John Templeton)

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: What Do All Religions Have in Common?
The Greatest Lesson from Childhood by Pablo Neruda
The Parable of the Carpenter’s Son
The Mayonnaise Jar and Cups of Coffee
The Wisdom of a Grandparent
The Wisdom of Parents
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Parable of the Ship Mechanic

Poems to Inspire During the Coronavirus Pandemic: No Man Is an Island

“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival… In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.”

The excerpt above was written by Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) from the introduction to The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Sadly, poetry books tend to stand forlorn on dusty bookshelves, often relegated to the back of whatever bookstores are still in business. In general, most people don’t read or buy poetry; paradoxically people have an insatiable appetite for songs — that are essentially poems set to music — as evidenced by the steady sale of digital music (mp3s) and music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. Nevertheless, Collins is correct in stating that during special events in our lives — whether tragic or joyful — we inevitably turn to poetry. One of the greatest students of the human psyche, Sigmund Freund, expressed it this way: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will be a period that will have an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness. It is unlike anything the world has ever experienced — a devastating, crippling worldwide pandemic that triggered a financial meltdown and an economic depression that will rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a matter of weeks we lost so much: the loss of 42,016 lives (as of this writing); more than 850,000 are sick; our way of life has been disrupted; businesses will falter or fail; and our trust and faith in government leaders has eroded. However, paradoxically, we have gained something: the pandemic has shattered our complacency of living selfish, isolated lives to discover an eternal truth that has been obscured by the fog of narcissism and the headlong pursuit of money: that all humans are connected to one another. Moreover, we are interdependent — alas, our survival today, and in the coming years, depends on this realization and the obligation to care for one another, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, or political affiliation. During a dark and difficult time like this, I cannot think of a poem that is more relevant and inspirational than John Donne’s short, but eloquent, poem known as “No Man is an Island.” Donne, a cleric of the Church of England, wrote many devotionals and sermons. This poem appear in Meditation 17, that appears in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624, during a very difficult time in his life when he was mourning the death of his wife, some of their children, and several friends. In this timeless poem, Donne reflects on mortality and an individual’s relation to humanity: 

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manor of thy friend’s,
Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Power of Literature
Each Rereading of a Book is Unique Because We Have Changed
The Poem I Turn To
Great Literature Speaks

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall

How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

For further reading: The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder
https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-death-toll/

The Wit and Wisdom of the French

alex atkins bookshelf booksLike every people, the French have their own accumulation of wisdom that has been passed on from generation to generation through stories, fables, and proverbs. I recently came across a little book of French Wit and Wisdom published by Peter Pauper Press (try saying that fast three times) in 1956. Peter Pauper Press, founded in 1928, publishes small gift books, including books of quotations and proverbs. Here is some timeless wisdom found in their collection of French sayings, pour voter illumination:

“Passion often makes fools of clever men; sometimes even makes clever men of fools.” (Francois de la Rochefoucauld)

“Man’s joy or sorrow depends as much upon his disposition as upon his fate.” (Francois de la Rochefoucauld)

“We work so consistently to disguise ourselves to others that we end by being disguised to ourselves” (Francois de la Rochefoucauld)

“A narrow mind begets obstinacy; it is hard to be persuaded of something beyond the scope of our understanding.” (Francois de la Rochefoucauld)

“Each age of life is new to us; no matter how old we are we still are troubled by inexperience.” (Jonathan Swift)

“To give birth to a desire, to nourish it, to develop it, to increase it, to irritate it, to satisfy it: this is a whole poem.” (Honore de Balzac)

“There are more fools than sages; and among the sages, there is more folly than wisdom.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“Pleasure may come of illusion, but happiness can come only of reality.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“The loss of illusions is the death of the soul.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“At every stage of life he reaches, man finds himself but a novice.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“To teach is to learn twice.” (Joseph Joubert)

“A reader finds little in a book save what he puts there. But in a great book he finds space to put many things.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“Statesmanship is the art of knowing and leading the multitude, or the majority. Its glory is to lead them, not where they want to go, but where they ought to go.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“Words are like glass — they obscure whatever they do not help us to see.” (Sebastien Chamfort)

“It is with books as with men, a very small number play a great part: the rest are confounded with the multitude.” (Voltaire)

“It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere.” (Voltaire)

“Poetry is the music of the soul.” (Voltaire)

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

 

What is the Most Important Lesson in Life? – Robert Frost

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAt his eightieth birthday celebration, Robert Frost, America’s most famous poet, and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, was asked: “In all your years and all your travels, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?” He paused for just a moment, then replied:

‘’In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles, with politicians and people slinging the word ‘fear’ around, all of us become discouraged, tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.

Just a little while back, at my farm near Ripton, Vermont, I planted a few more trees. You wonder why? Well, I’m like the Chinese of ninety who did the same thing. When they asked him why, he said that the world wasn’t a desert when he came into it and wouldn’t be when he departed. Those trees will keep on growing after I’m gone and after you’re gone.

I don’t hold with people who say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ or ‘What’s the use?’ I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I thought we didn’t have a direction to go in. But if you ask me what the direction is, I can’t answer. It’s different for each of us. The important thing to remember is that there is a direction and a continuity even if so often we think we’re lost. 

Despite our fears and worries — and they’re very real to all of us — life continues… it goes on. Three words above all else. In my eighty years, that I’ve learned.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Greatest Life Lesson: Life is Transitory
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

For further reading: “Robert Frost’s Secret” by Ray Josephs, appearing in This Week magazine, September 1954.

The Wisdom of Cornel West

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomWhat better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day than to attend a lecture by Cornel West, discussing democracy, justice, and race. West, like Noam Chomsky, is a public intellectual, philosopher, social critic, and political activist. He graduated from Harvard College magna cum  laude with a degree in Near Eastern languages and civilization. He received his PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. West taught at Harvard, the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Yale Divinity School, and the University of Paris. He is the recipient of 20 honorary degrees and has written over 20 books. Race Matters, published in 1994, and Democracy Matters, published in 2004, are two of his most notable and influential works. Filmgoers will recognize the famous philosopher as Councilor West in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) movies. If that isn’t impressive enough, he has also recorded several soul, hip-hop, and spoken word albums.

The excitement in the packed auditorium was palpable. Heads turned as he walked through the center aisle, wearing his trademarked black three piece suit with a gold pocket watch chain dangling from his waist. He marched on the stage and with his deep, booming voice proclaimed, “I am only scheduled for an hour, but I feel moved by the spirit!” What followed was a mesmerizing two-hour presentation that was one part college lecture (evoking the great names of philosophy, history, and literature), one part tribute to jazz and Motown (the man knows his music and lyrics!), and two parts Baptist sermon and gospel revival (with scattered shouts from the audience of “Amen!” “Preach it, Brother!” and an uplifting, foot-stomping sing-along of the timeless gospel song “This Little Light of Mine” that was popularized by the civil rights movement). You couldn’t help but think that this is what is must have been like to attend an event featuring  Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. The evening ending with a long, thunderous standing ovation that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Bookshelf honors Martin Luther King Jr. Day by sharing the wisdom of Cornel West drawn from his writings and his lecture of that memorable evening.

“Justice is what love looks like in public; tenderness is what love looks like in private.”

“I take my fundamental cue from John Coltrane that says there must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft.”

“I have tried to be a man of letters in love with ideas in order to be a wiser and more loving person, hoping to leave the world just a little better than I found it.”

“I’ve never been tied to one party or one candidate or even one institution. And that’s true even with one church as a Christian. I’m committed to truth and justice.”

“I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years ‘Be successful, be successful, be successful!’ as opposed to ‘Be great, be great, be great.’ There’s a qualitative difference.

“King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a reevaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.“

“There is a sense in which there has to be a poetic mode of expression that moves people — you have to communicate in the form of stories and narratives that carry with them certain kinds of values and virtues. When the values and virtues are cached in light of Christian stories of love and justice but connected to a whole host of non-Christian persons, so that you’re speaking to human beings and fellow citizens, you make an intervention as a Christian. But the stories and narratives that you put forward in a poetic form still are able to seize the hearts, minds, and souls of fellow citizens of all different traditions and viewpoints. That is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. was able to do, and there was a real sense in which his example is something that we need to learn from in the early part of the twenty-first century as the American empire wafers and wobbles.”

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

“If you view life as a gold rush, you’re going to end up worshiping a golden calf. And when you call for help, and that golden calf can’t respond, you go under.”

“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

“Music at its best…is the grand archeology into and transfiguration of our guttural cry, the great human effort to grasp in time our deepest passions and yearnings as prisoners of time. Profound music leads us — beyond language — to the dark roots of our scream and the celestial
heights of our silence.”

“To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of ‘no’ into the ‘yes’ — needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it.”

“In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

“It is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice… there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others –– especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!”

“[My religious grounding] has everything to do with taking the Christian gospel seriously by trying to take love seriously, connecting love to justice, and recognizing what Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said, that justice is what love looks like in public. Therefore, looking at the world through the lens of the cross means putting a premium on the least of these; to echo the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it means looking at the prisoners, the widow, the orphan, the workers, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, people of color, indigenous peoples, and so forth. Whatever kind of theology you want to call it, I’m just trying to be truthful to the gospel. If we take the cross seriously—which has so much to do with unarmed truth, and the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, and the cross has so much to do with unconditional love—then we can’t love people simply by hating when they are treated unjustly. If we take the cross seriously, we must consider how we understand the world, think about the world, and act in the world. Then, certainly in that regard, my attempt to live the Christian life is at the center of what I think and do.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related post: Why “I Have a Dream” Speech Endures
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King and the Suicide Letter
The Singer Who Inspired Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech

Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King

For further reading: The Cornel West Reader by Cornel West
https://theotherjournal.com/2009/08/21/politics-virtues-and-struggle-an-interview-with-cornel-west/

Life Lessons from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

atkins-bookshelf-xmasStudents of literature, indeed anyone who loves books and stories, can agree on one universal truth — that, in the words of C. S. Lewis “we read to know that we are not alone.” Novelist and essayist James Baldwin adds: “You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone.”

Another universal truth is that we read to learn, to heal, and to transform ourselves. As George Dawson, an English literature lecturer and founder of the Shakespeare Memorial Library in Birmingham, observed: “The great consulting room of a wise man is a library… the solemn chamber in which man can take counsel with all that have been wise and great and good and glorious amongst the men that have gone before him.”

On this Christmas day, we turn our attention to a ghostly little story that has much to teach: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a story of about redemption, forgiveness, and generosity. But Dickens did not write A Christmas Carol simply to amuse us; he wrote it to inspire self-reflection and change — to help us become better human beings. “Beyond entertaining us,” writes Bob Welch in 52 Little Life Lessons From A Christmas Carol, “Dickens wanted to make us uncomfortable, because it’s only after we get a touch uneasy with ourselves that we open ourselves to change… to create a spark that might lead to flames of action: changing how we look at the world, changing how we act in the world, and ultimately changing how we will be remembered in the world.” Indeed, if we are able to transform ourselves, in light of the lessons from Dickens’s classic story, this is the Christmas miracle.

Bookshelf presents some important life lessons from A Christmas Carol gleaned from Welch’s enlightening little book:

Don’t be selfish
Don’t let people steal your joy
See life as a child
Everyone has value
Life isn’t just about business
You make the chains that shackle you
Humility enhances vision
To heal you must feel
Your actions affect others
The love of money costs you in the end
Life is best lived when you are awake
Learning begins with listening
Attitude is everything

The past can be empowering
Don’t return evil for evil
Bitterness will poison you
Dying lonely is the result of living lonely
Pain is the privilege of losing someone you care deeply about
Amid tragedy, others still need you
Before honor comes humility
Give because you have been given to
Giving changes your perspective
Live with the end in mind
It is never too late to change
Be the change you want to see

And as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, everyone!”

SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Introduce them to the world of ideas. Best of all, a subscription by email is free. Happy Holidays.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

Words invented by Dickens
The Power of Literature

For further reading: 52 Little Lessons From A Christmas Carol by Bob Welch (2015)

Little Books, Big Ideas: Words of Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: Words of Wisdom: A Book of Inspiration compiled by Armand Eisen for Andrews McMeel Publishing, a publisher of novelty books, comics, and calendars. In the introduction, Eisen writes: “Wisdom means something different to each of us, yet there is a golden thread that unites the words of great thinkers and writers — a common instinct for truth. Collected here is a sampling of the sages — reflections and advice on life’s joys, beauties, lessons, and eternal truths.” Here are some pearls of wisdom:

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” (Robert Byrne)

“The man who has lived longest is not the he who has spent the greatest number of years, but he who has had the greatest sensibility of life.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

“If there is any peace it will come through living, not knowing.” (Henry Miller)

“Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread and we want to know the whole cloth.” (Gustave Flaubert)

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” (Jonathan Swift)

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (William James)

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to Heaven.” (William Shakespeare, from All’s Well That Ends Well)

“Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applause which he cannot keep.” (Samuel Johnson)

“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” (Marcus Aurelius)

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

 

Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: On Things That Really Matter written by Jackson Brown, Jr. who wrote the New York Times bestseller Life’s Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life (1992). One of Brown’s central beliefs is that “when you take inventory of the things in life that you treasure most, you’ll find that none of them was purchased with money.” “Hey — isn’t there a song about that? you ask?” Yes, it is “The Best Things in Life are Free,” by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson from the musical 1927 Good News. The song was popularized by Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby for an earlier generation. But we digress.

Let’s turn back to Brown’s more recent miniature book. “There is a fundamental question we all have to face,” writes Brown, “How are we to live our lives; by what principle and moral values will we be guided and inspired? I once heard a minister compare life to a slippery staircase—an apt analogy. Slipping and sliding as we all do, we intuitively reach out for support, for anything to keep us from falling. There is a handrail. But its stability is determined by the values we have chosen to guide our lives. It is, therefore, no stronger, no more reliable, than the quality of the choices we have made.” Spot on, brother.

Brown’s little book is filled with big ideas — ones that will fortify the handrails of your life. Here are some of those ideas from notable thinkers and writers, as well as individuals who did not achieve fame but lived full, meaningful, and fulfilling lives and have wisdom to share:

“Treasure the love you receive above all. It will survive long after gold and good health have vanished.” (Og Mandino)

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an art but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” (Henrik Ibsen)

“Do not care overly much for wealth or power or fame, or one day you will meet someone who cares for none of these things, and you will realize how poor you have become.” (Rudyard Kipling)

“I ve learned that the best way to have friends is to be the kind of friend you’d like to have.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that every person you meet knows something you don’t know. Learn from them.” (Anonymous)

“Never underestimate the influence of the people you have allowed into your life.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that a happy person is not a person with a certain set of circumstances but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that pain is inevitable; misery is optional.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that I don’t need more to be thankful for; I need to be thankful more.” (Anonymous)

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

 

What Advice Does Polonius Give His Son?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAny parent who has a child going to college faces that moment when they must let his or her child leave the proverbial nest on a journey of discovery, to seek out those transformative experiences that will shape the edifice of young adulthood to be built on the foundation of familial values, traditions, and years of parental guidance. As your child hugs you and says goodbye, what final parental advice should you impart? If you are Polonius, the chief counselor to King Claudius (father of Prince Hamlet), you want to dispense some life lessons covering a wide variety of topics before your son, Laertes (brother to Ophelia), leaves to attend university in France. This is one of the most famous speeches in Hamlet — and certainly, its eloquence is matched by its verbosity.

Modern readers who read or listen to Polonius’ famous fatherly advice with its verbal flourishes and rather peculiar Elizabethan diction typically have one response: WTF? What is that Polo dude really saying? Can someone please translate this into modern English? Sure. But before we proceed, we should mention that in the context of the play, Polonius is considered to be a bit of a pretentious buffoon, much like a modern congressman or presidential spokesperson. Although Polonius is a sincere father, we have to question his intentions because the sum of his advice is rather ironic: as his son prepares to leave for college (ostensibly to take chances and explore the world, discover his true self, etc.), he tells him essentially to play it safe. Say what? You also have to question the timing: realize that Laertes is now in his late teens or early 20s, and it might be late for some of this advice. For this reason, some literary critics believe that Polonius is a bit of a hypocrite: he hasn’t been around for his son, and now as his son is leaving for college, Polonius decides to cram 18 years of fatherly wisdom into one speech. Thanks for nothin, Pops! Nevertheless, when the advice is taken individually, one has to admit that it is quite sound. So let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks and see if you agree.

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory

Meaning: Laertes, my boy, you’re still here? Get going! Your ship awaits. I give you my blessings (again). But, before you leave, I do have a few life lessons to share with you. You might want to record this on your iPhone so you don’t forget my longwinded speech. Besides, realize that you cannot count on Siri to dispense meaningful life lessons!

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Meaning: Don’t just say what you are thinking (think before you speak!) and don’t act in haste (don’t be impulsive!). Be friendly to people but don’t go overboard and embarrass yourself.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. 

Meaning: Know who are your true friends (news flash: they are not your Facebook friends or Twitter followers!). Really appreciate those friends and hang on to them. Don’t work too hard to make new friends — they will never be as good as the ones you already have.

Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Meaning: Don’t be too quick to pick a fight, but if you do — hold your own. (And if you are going to be in a sword fight, make sure you are holding the sword with the poisoned-dipped tip!) Next, learn to be a good listener. Listen to people, but be circumspect. Listen to the views or opinions of others, but don’t necessarily share your own. It’s OK for someone to disapprove of you, but try not to judge others.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Meaning: Be a good consumer: spend as much as you can on nice clothes. Don’t waste your money on tacky clothes from strip mall outlets. Shop the good sales at A&F, Gap, etc. And since you are going to France, where fashion is king, remember that “clothes make the man.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Meaning: Don’t be stupid and lose a friendship by borrowing from or lending money to a friend. Trust me, you’ll lose both! Besides, borrowing money just makes you careless with money. Live within your means — or I am cancelling your credit cards!

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Meaning: And the most important lesson, of course, is to be true to yourself. (Of course, this last advice sort of contradicts all the very specific advice that he just dished out). That way you will not come off as a phoney (and you know how much Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates those kind of people!) Goodbye, my boy, I hope my blessing helps you understand the life lessons I have shared with you. If not, you’ll end up in crazy town, like your sister.

So now that we have translated or paraphrased Polonius’ advice to Laertes into modern English, let us now ponder the inescapable question: is this the best advice that a father could give his son? What — or more precisely, what other — life lessons should Polonius have imparted to his college-bound son?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Who Stole Shakespeare’s Skull?
When Was Shakespeare Born?

The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare the Pop Song Writer
Random Fascinating Facts About Shakespeare

Most Common Nicknames for Shakespeare
Most Beautiful Books of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Were Shakespeare’s Sonnets Written to a Young Man?

What Dictionary Did Shakespeare Use?
Shakespeare’s Portrait as A Young Man Discovered
What is the Origin of Clothes Makes the Man?

It is the Man Who Craves More that is Poor

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout. He says: ‘Contented poverty is an honorable estate.’ Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

From Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius) by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), Roman philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and tutor to the future emperor Nero. The Moral Letters to Lucilius (also referred to as Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic) are a collection of 124 fascinating, thought-provoking letters that were written by Seneca during his retirement, after being an adviser to Emperor Nero. The letters, addressed to the procurator of Sicily, Lucilius, but were intended for a wider audience, provide guidance on morality and emphasize the themes of Stoicism. Although Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 3 BC, it was popularized by the works and teachings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Some of the main teachings of Stoicism are that life is brief and happiness is found in the moment, virtue (like wisdom) is the only good, judgment should be based on behavior rather than words, and discontent is due to one’s impulsive dependency on reflexive senses rather than logic, and not being in accord with nature brings dissatisfaction.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

The Wisdom of the 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIt is perhaps the most elite club on the planet Earth — out of the 7.5 billion people that populate this planet, only a fortunate few — 12 courageous men — have travelled the more than 240,000 miles to land and walk on the Moon. Of those 12 astronauts, as of July 20, 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), only four are still alive: Buzz Aldrin (89 years old), David Scott (87), Charles Duke (83), and Harrison Schmitt (84). If there ever was a moment that united the entire planet, it was that fateful day that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 2:46 UTC. NASA estimated that 500 people around the globe watched this event, transfixed to their television sets. It is one of those magical, memorable moments. Ask anyone from that generation: “Where were you when man landed on the Moon,” and that individual will travel back in time and happily recollect details from that glorious day.

Despite their different upbringing, training, and character, what united these 12 men, apart from this incredibly ambitious, complex, and risky mission, was the opportunity to see the planet Earth like no other human being — a truly global, or more accurately — universal perspective. As you read through their quotations, one thing becomes crystal clear: the experience of standing on the gray, barren lunar terrain allowed them to see the Earth in an entirely new way — to behold its stunning beauty, but realize its fragility. Each of them was profoundly impacted by this powerful, yet humbling, experience and they carried this unique perspective, this worldly insight, for the rest of their lives. One would wish that every world leader, military leader, and politician would have a similar experience and revelation — for the sake of their country, and the world at large. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan summarized it best in a beautiful, eloquent speech delivered at Cornell University in 1994: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Neil Alden Armstrong (Apollo 11, Commander)
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin (Apollo 11, Lunar Module Pilot)
“I don’t know why people who have not been on rockets continue to ask, ‘you’re not scared?’ no we were not scared… until something happens, then it’s time to get scared.”

Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. (Apollo 12, Commander)
“I made the remark when we went over the top, ‘eureka, Houston, the Earth is really round,’ and when i got back to Houston, I got all this mail from members of the Flat Earth Society telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Alan LaVerne Bean (Apollo 12, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Since that time, I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. iIve not complained about traffic, I’m glad there’s people around… boy we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.”

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. (Apollo 14, Commander)
“I realized up there that our planet is not infinite. It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.

Edgar Dean “Ed” Mitchell (Apollo 14, Lunar Module Pilot)
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

David Randolph Scott (Apollo 15, Commander)
“It truly is an oasis and we don’t take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to, you know, saving the Earth if you will.”

James Benson “Jim” Irwin (Apollo 15, Lunar Module Pilot)
“The Earth reminded us of a christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

John Watts Young (Apollo 16, Commander)
“NASA is not about the ‘adventure of human space exploration,’ we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. All human exploration’s bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul.”

Charles Moss “Charlie” Duke Jr. (Apollo 16, Lunar Module Pilot)
Tthat jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space. The only people that have seen the whole circle of the Earth are the 24 guys that went to the Moon.”

Eugene Andrew Cernan (Apollo 17, Commander
“The night before I flew, I wrote a letter to Tracy, just in case: to my darling daughter Tracy — Trace, you’re almost too young to understand what it means to have your daddy to go to the moon… I want you to look at the Moon because when you are reading this, daddy is almost there.”

Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Working on the Moon is a lot of fun. It’s like walking around on a giant trampoline all the time and you’re just as strong as you were here on Earth but you don’t weigh as much. You only weigh one-sixth of what you weigh on the Moon. even with the suit and the backpack, my total weight was only 61 pounds.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Carl Sagan’s Reflection on the Pale Blue Dot
The Black Hole and the Pale Blue Dot: the Humbling of Humanity
How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

For further reading: https://pilgrimage.space/12-people-walked-moon/